The Minneapolis City Council's recent vote to revoke the rental licenses of landlord Ron Folger's 16 rental properties ("Mpls. set to revoke landlord's licenses," Dec. 13) exposes the peculiar nature of housing inspections in the Twin Cities. There should be a public debate over the legitimacy of its operation.
Folger lost his licenses because of an ordinance that allows the City Council to revoke the rental licenses on all properties owned by a landlord if the licenses have already been revoked on two of his properties.
The individual revocations, in turn, depend upon a landlord's failing to respond adequately to three warning letters issued by the police department.
In Folger's case, the hired property manager had failed to evict someone caught possessing drugs in one of his buildings. He had also not sent the required "management plan" to the city in time.
He had not kept an appointment to meet with an inspector. (Folger points out that two inspections were scheduled in different locations at the same time.)
Why is this an question of legitimacy? Because the legitimate function of the housing inspections program is to monitor the condition of the city's housing stock with an eye to correcting health and safety problems.
In practice, housing inspections is used both for building safety and police objectives. Folger was cited for a tenant's drug possession in a building. That is a police issue. City officials have put it under the jurisdiction of housing inspections even though it is individuals rather than buildings who commit crimes.
Through its "conduct on premises" ordinance (244.2020), the city holds rental-property owners accountable for the behavior of tenants. Neither the police nor government in all its splendor and power can ensure that the city remains crime-free, so we assign the duty to the owners of private businesses.
Notice, too, that Folger lost his rental license for 16 properties -- which means that he cannot legally fill them with paying tenants for five years -- even though only two properties had problems.
This leads to my second point: that inspections are not focused on the condition of buildings so much as upon their demonized owners. Why?
Because this makes good politics.
Through its subsidized block clubs and neighborhood associations, the city's political culture harbors a strong stereotype of "absentee landlords" and "slumlords" who get rich off people in poor neighborhoods by failing to maintain their buildings and "tolerating" crime.
Some council members lead the charge to punish these evil landlords because, quite frankly, hate sells.
As a result, we do not have a system of uniform, professional housing inspections but one oriented toward punishing the enemies of city officials.
The city has adopted a multitiered scheme of inspecting some rental-license holders every year but most only every eight years according to a system that, according to the city's housing inspection director, "assigns points according to their records for police calls and criminal activity, nuisance conditions, housing code violations, and cooperation with the city."
Notice that only one of the four categories -- housing code violations -- has to do with the condition of housing. This illustrates how the system has strayed from its core mission.
In my opinion, fire is the main building-related safety threat. A few years ago, a fire swept through an apartment on East Lake Street, killing several persons. The building had not been inspected in 16 years. This was a failure of both the building owner and the city's fire-inspection managers.
If inspections could make sure that the major hazards are covered and not try to micromanage rental-property businesses, we would all be better off.
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William McGaughey is a Minneapolis landlord and codirector of the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee.